A giant fire that could be seen for miles erupted at the crude distillation unit of Chevron's Richmond, California oil refinery on August 6, burning uncontained for four hours and continuing as a smaller, controlled fire into August 7. According to the California Emergency Management Agency, both sulfuric acid and nitrogen dioxide were released into the atmosphere as the fire burned. Hundreds of local residents were sent to the hospital as a result, mostly seeking care for respiratory problems and eye irritation.
According to Chevron sources, the problems began at 4:15 p.m. when a small hydrocarbon vapor leak was discovered in the unit. Despite the fact that Chevron is legally required to notify the public immediately of any gas leak, fire or oil spill, officials made no move to alert nearby residents, instead sending in technicians to try and stop the leak. Company engineers began stripping insulation off the leaky pipe, trying to find the source of the problem, but by about 6:30 p.m., the volume of leaking gas had increased to the point where workers had to be evacuated.
The leaking vapor then ignited and the fire erupted. It was at that point that Chevron officials alerted local emergency responders and warned residents in Richmond and several surrounding towns to shelter in place—stay in their homes, close doors and windows and cover cracks around windows with tape or damp towels. Despite the safety instructions, more than 300 people visited Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo and over 350 visited Kaiser Permanente's Richmond Medical Center, all seeking treatment for health concerns related to the fire and release of chemicals. Three plant workers were also injured in the fire.
This was not the first major fire to occur at Chevron's Richmond plant. In January 2007, a fire also broke out at the plant, spewing sulfur dioxide and other toxins into the environment. Two workers were injured in that incident, and the effect of the chemicals on local residents' health is still unknown.
Large accidents such as these are also not the only times when chemicals from the plant put area locals' health at risk. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory, Chevron's Richmond refinery is one of California's top 10 emitters of toxic chemicals (spewing an average of 543,155 pounds per year into the environment, according to data).
It is also the state's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and, since 2007, the refinery has been cited by San Francisco area regulators 93 times for violations of clean air regulations. Chevron has already paid $170,000 in fines to resolve its clean air violations dating between 2005 and 2009; the total fine it will have to pay to settle more recent violations is still being determined.
Area residents have always been aware of potential dangers that may arise from living so close to a refinery, but still say that Chevron needs to improve its early warning system in order to protect their safety. Richmond mayor Gayle McLaughlin said, "We live with the day-to-day risk of this type of manufacturing and refining that has an impact on our community with pollutants being released, but with the accident that happened yesterday, that doesn't mean it's acceptable, because it's not."
When companies like Chevron fail to take appropriate safety measures, citizens who live in the vicinity of their refineries and plants are put in danger. If you or a loved one has been injured by toxic chemicals being released from an industrial plant like Chevron's Richmond refinery, the personal injury attorneys at Arnold & Itkin can help you find justice. Contact our office today for a free and confidential consultation.